Despite the consistent play at the top of the roster and growth from role players coming off the bench, the one player that has been a major question mark in recent weeks is lead guard Ashton Hagans.
After starting the year playing like the top point guard in all of college basketball, the sophomore playmaker has quickly turned into a turnover machine, coughing up the ball 22 times compared to just 25 assists in UK’s last five games.
Against Tennessee, Hagans finished with 10 points – just his second double-digit scoring performance in five games – on 2-8 shooting to go with four rebounds, three assists, and a steal to go with five turnovers. Those watching the game, though, could see that the Kentucky offense was fairly sloppy and points were hard to come by with Hagans leading the way.
No matter how difficult things have been for the sophomore point guard in recent weeks, the coaching staff still has faith in him to turn things around as the season comes to a close.
“Ashton is a driven, competitive young man that wants to do well first and foremost. And sometimes Ashton comes in and just is trying to make the right play be perfect instead of just taking what’s there and getting our team into some offense or taking a shot,” Kentucky assistant coach Joel Justus told the media on Monday afternoon. “You know, he’s trying to get guys involved, and I really think he’s trying to do what Coach is asking him to do. He’s trying to do what our team is asking him to do. And he wants to win more than anything.”
What has caused the turnover issues? According to Justus, it could be nothing more than needing rest and/or forcing the issue at times. He hasn’t “regressed” as a player, he’s just hit a slight wall.
“Sometimes it’s unlucky, sometimes it’s him forcing it, sometimes it’s the fact that we haven’t had guys play well when they’ve had their opportunities and now he is playing extended minutes when he should be coming out and grabbing a quick blow,” Justus said. “I don’t think it concerns us; I think it’s just another opportunity for him to learn and grow. I mean, he’s still a young basketball player in the grand scheme of things, and for us it gives other guys and opportunity to step up and play well, and thankfully for us they have.”
As frustrating as it has been for Hagans, he knows slumps like the one he is currently dealing with is just part of the game of basketball. To overcome these issues, though, the sophomore guard understands he needs to have short-term memory and move on to the next game.
“Just playing my game, it happens,” Hagans said of his current issues. “Just leave that in the past whenever that happens and try to fix it the next game. … It looks bad [on film]. But at the same time, it doesn’t look as bad because you can see what you’re actually doing and what you can actually fix and then you see how fast you’re really going when you can actually slow down and get us into something. Once I watch film, I just try to look at the mistakes and try to fix that and talk to my coaches and see what they think about it.”
“I would say just being too fast sometimes, rushing a lot of things. Just small things like that that I can fix.”
Justus feels above all else, Hagans’ tendency to force the issue at times goes back to his competitiveness and will to win, key traits that intrigued the coaching staff during his recruitment.
The short-term struggles are evident, but at the end of the day “winning basketball” will lead to long-term rewards.
“I think everybody at times tries too hard,” Justus said. “I think that goes back to the character of the people that we recruit. I think it talks about they are coached here. Coach Cal is unapologetic that we teach winning basketball here. We find that in the recruiting process. Guys want to win. You don’t come to Kentucky unless you want to win. Ashton is one of them. Really, everybody in that locker room wants to win or they wouldn’t be here. As a staff, we all want to win. And that’s what’s No. 1 for us is teaching our guys how to play winning basketball because if you play winning basketball you are going to play basketball for a long time.”
While he works out his own issues, Hagans is confident his teammates can do enough to pick up the slack and lead the team to victory on any given night.
“It’s scary because one of us can have a bad game and somebody else can play real good if we all weren’t on the same page that night,” he said. “For the guards to be on the same page, it could be scary. … There’s others out there that do the same, like Johnny (Juzang), he stepped up when I was playing bad. And that’s what we’re going to need out of a couple of other guys to get a higher seed. But we’re getting there, I’m getting there, trying to get better each and every day.”